1968: A Question of Choice

Decisions, decisions.

Image: the author

Guiding his Oldsmobile carefully up the driveway to the garage of his house in the suburbs of a typical midwestern American town, Scott Hewitt had something planned for the evening. It was 1968, a year that would prove to be pivotal in world history as well as a bloody one. Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy would not see the end of the year alive, and neither would Martin Luther King.

The war in Vietnam escalated with the fierce Tet offensive, and the awful My Lai massacre would change many people’s minds about why and if the USA should have ever been involved in it in the first place. Violence and unrest were not limited to Southeast Asia- witness student riots in Paris, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the ignition of ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Significant if less deadly pointers to changing times ahead were the protests of black athletes at the Mexico Olympics, the controversial musical ‘Hair’ and the first interracial kiss on American TV courtesy of ‘Star Trek’.

But as Scott Hewitt opened the front door, he had something different on his mind other than world events although, in 1960s America, what he was about to do was definitely still an event: choose a new car. And Scott would involve his family in the decision: Janet, his wife of 19 years, daughter Susie, who had just turned 18, and his 14 year-old car-crazy son, James.

The car due to be replaced, a 1965 Oldsmobile 98. Image: puzzlefactory.com

Scott had done quite well for himself and his family thusfar: the hardware and construction supplies store he started shortly after the Second World War was well known and popular in the region and he had added a second outlet on the other side of town three years before that enjoyed equally brisk business. His comfortable financial position afforded him and his family the means to live in a pleasant house in a quiet, leafy suburb and also enjoy the convenience of being a two-car household.

His dark blue 1965 Oldsmobile 98 Sedan was still in fine working order, but Scott sensed that the time was perhaps right to take the final step up into the luxury class. This narrowed down the field somewhat but still left a range of options ranging from safe to risqué. Scott had already more or less whittled down the candidates and had instructed James -although not much of an incentive was needed- to go on a tour of the local car dealers and acquire the various brochures.

As he put out his after-dinner cigarette, Scott turned to his son: “Ok Jimmy, show us what brochures you got, and put them on the coffee table so we can get started”. His teenage son walked briskly to his room, returned a few moments later with a sizeable stack of brochures in his arms and deposited the lot on the table.

On top of the pile were two Lincoln brochures; “There’s no convertible anymore this year” James informed his father as he opened the cream-coloured cover of the brochure. Scott wasn’t that surprised by this news: although elegant and unique with its four-door configuration, it was an expensive vehicle and he did not encounter many of them. There was, however, an attractive new addition to the Lincoln range in the form of the Mark III, for which James had brought the separate brochure.

“Oh, wow, that looks far out!” exclaimed Susie in between sips of her Coca-Cola. An enthusiastic “yeah” from James signalled his agreement. Scott concurred, but it was a two-door coupé, which wasn’t really very practical as he regularly traveled four-up with business acquaintances. The Mark III brochure was relegated to the three-legged stool next to the coffee table. James would add it (and, eventually, all the others) to his as yet modest but expanding collection of car brochures.

Scott knew the senior salesman at Curtiss Lincoln-Mercury as he was a regular customer in his hardware shop. Would he go and take a test drive in a new Continental? He wasn’t so sure he would. It was one of those things- a car has to ‘speak’ to you, and Scott felt that, even though he was approaching middle-age, the Lincoln seemed to his eyes not the right car for him now. A fine car it certainly was, but mentally he had already virtually eliminated the Continental from his options, although the brochure was not yet moved to the stool but remained on the coffee table.

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The removal of the Continental brochure from the top of the stack had revealed not another brochure, but rather a large glossy black-and-white press photograph and two pages of printed text with the words “Confidential – for internal use only” in bold print at the top of the page.

“I got that at McGowen Blake, you know, the one with the imports.” James clarified. “It’s not available yet but will be soon, they said”. Taking in the image, Janet ventured an opinion. “That is pretty” she said,  approvingly. Indeed it was, the glossy photograph portrayed the soon to be introduced Jaguar XJ6. To be honest, Scott was also quite taken by the elegant shape of Jaguar’s latest, but a glance at the specifications -notably the interior leg and headroom, but also the luggage capacity – caused him to dismiss William Lyons’ masterpiece and onto the stool it went.

The next two brochures, for the 1968 Oldsmobiles and Buicks respectively, had been easy to get for James since he accompanied his father whenever he had to visit the dealership for maintenance, and the salespeople had got to know him. The Olds 98 was, of course, a known quantity to Scott as he currently owned one, but therein also lay a problem. Buying another 98 would be more of the same, even though he was quite satisfied with both the car itself and the level of service at the dealership, City Oldsmobile-Buick. He really wanted to feel -and in his heart of hearts, also be seen- as taking a step up in the world and, for that, another 98 would no longer do.

For that same reason the Buick Electra also fell to the wayside as it would be not so much a step up as a sideways move. Leafing through both brochures, the restyled Toronado and Riviera briefly got some attention from the Hewitts. “Why did they do that? I liked the Toronado better before” commented James, wrinkling his nose while looking at the photo of the Toro’s new visage. His words were met with nods and murmurs of agreement from the family. In any case, beautiful or not, neither car would fit Scott’s needs so it was on to the next candidate.

Scout wasn’t thrilled. Image: the author

The fetching green cover with its sculptured logo made the Imperial brochure stand out from the others. Janet glanced briefly at the Imperial LeBaron showcased on the first inside pages, stood up and walked towards the kitchen. “I’ll get us some drinks and potato chips” she said. No comment from her on the Imperial and, in fairness, the car did not do much for anyone in the family. The Imperial used to be a unique car until recently and had the street credibility to match but, since a year ago, it had become little more than a very well appointed Chrysler.

Charles Middleton, owner of the carpet and wallpaper store next to Scott’s business, drove a 1967 Imperial and Scott had to admit that it performed really well and rode beautifully. It also looked and felt like the quality item it was, and yet a certain something was missing. Scout, the family dog, briefly looked up towards Scott holding the Imperial catalog in his hands, yawned and let out an audible sigh. They now had a unanimous verdict, so the Chrysler Corporation’s finest was banished to the stool.

In your dreams, buddy. Image: the author

Longtime local dealership Norwood Chevrolet was the supplier of the next two brochures, for Chevy’s full-size cars and the all-new Corvette. Naturally, James hadn’t passed on the opportunity to get his hands on that one, even if it did not at all fit his fathers brief. The Caprice, Chevrolet’s finest full-size offering, was quickly eliminated from the options for much the same reasons the Oldsmobile 98 and Buick Electra hadn’t made the cut.

That new Corvette however was something else; was this really a production vehicle and not just a concept car? Scott marveled at the voluptuous shape and his mind wandered, his inner voice starting to justify the prospect. Reflexively he said: “Well, Janet already has the 1966 Fairlane wagon, which is large enough for us all, and I can always borrow that whenever I need more room.”

The sound of a kitchen cabinet door closing a little louder than normal caught Scott’s attention. His head turned towards his wife in the kitchen and their eyes met. He knew that look. It meant “I don’t think so”, and that was the end of Scott’s brief fantasy. As so often, Janet was right: it would look a bit silly, and maybe a bit desperate, jumping from a formal Oldsmobile 98 sedan into a brash Corvette at his age.

Wistfully, Scott laid the Corvette brochure on the stool, James excited to add it to his collection. Oddly enough, there was still only one brochure that had so far made the cut -the Lincoln- and Scott wasn’t even that wild about it.

You can take off without me. Image: the author

Quigg’s Ford was where James helped out on Saturdays to supplement his pocket-money, washing and polishing traded-in cars, so access to Ford publicity material was not a problem- including the classy Thunderbird catalog with its crocodile skin-effect black cover. In the brochure for the full-size Ford sedans, the LTD certainly represented value for the money and came with just about all the amenities that a luxury car owner could want. On purely rational terms, the car -as did its competitors from Chevrolet, Dodge, Oldsmobile, Mercury, Pontiac, AMC, Plymouth and Buick- fitted the bill, except for one thing: the cachet of a luxury brand name was absent.

Scott also remembered taking a short test drive in a 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 when purchasing his wife’s Fairlane Wagon and being impressed with the room, performance and quietness, but not with the somewhat tinny quality impression of its bodywork when compared to his Oldsmobile, making him wonder just how long it would stay that quiet. The Ford brochure joined the ‘no’ pile on the stool

The Thunderbird brochure was opened next. The car had changed a lot since its introduction, a year after James was born, Scott thought, and not necessarily for the better from a driving enthusiast’s point of view. The sales numbers told a different story, however, and as a businessman himself, Scott was all too aware that was what counted for Ford Motor Company.

The last Thunderbird convertible had been offered for 1966, and a replacement of sorts was produced in the form of the four-door Landau. It was a polarising design and, within Scott’s family circle, that pattern held true: Scott and James liked it, but Janet and Susie did not. “What are those weird things behind the rear doors anyway” Susie said. “It looks like the old pram mom used to put me and Jimmy in.” Undeterred by his sister’s criticism, James countered: “Mr Quigg told me that the 429 cubic-inch Thunderjet V8 is now standard equipment; that T-Bird will really fly!”

Regardless of looks and performance however, Scott had to conclude that, even if the Landau had four doors and promised plenty of performance and luxury, it was limited in terms of rear passenger room. Yes, its wheelbase had been stretched two inches (to 117″) compared to the two-door Thunderbird, and the ‘suicide’ rear doors did make entry and exit easier, but a Buick Electra, for example, had a ten inches more between the wheels which made a big difference. So there was only one way for the T-Bird to fly, off to the stool.

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The next brochure was a bit of a surprise as Scott had almost forgotten about the fact that AMC still had a horse in the luxury race, the Ambassador. So had most other potential luxury car buyers, which explained why you didn’t see that many of them. James most likely took the trouble of a relatively long bicycle trip to Stone Mountain AMC to get this brochure because of the new Javelin pictured inside and, while all agreed AMC’s new Mustang fighter looked the part, it was not what Scott was looking for at this time.

The AMC Ambassador had a unique selling point: it was the only American-made car with air conditioning fitted as standard equipment. Even at Cadillac and Lincoln, one had to fork out a substantial extra amount of dollars for that convenience. This appealed to Janet who, even now that their business made good money, had always remained watchful concerning of the family’s spending. Looks-wise, the Ambassador also carried itself quite well and, if a customer so wanted, could be fitted with V8 engines delivering up to 280 Hp. Apart from a prestige badge, it had everything Scott needed, even if it would be a somewhat left-field choice. So, the AMC brochure remained on the table for now, in no small part on Janet’s account.

Pontiac dealer Milner had given James a beautifully illustrated large catalog. By this time, most car manufacturers had switched to photography to present their wares but Pontiac held on to its artwork and those illustrations by the mysterious ‘AF/VK’ were mesmerising. The Bonneville had been Pontiac’s top line for years, but now there was an even posher Bonneville Brougham, first presented two years earlier.

Ultimately however, despite bringing several attractive features to the table, the Bonneville Brougham failed to make the cut for the same reason the top models from the other non-luxury makes had. The same fate was in store for the Plymouth, Dodge and Mercury brochures that were also part of James’ harvest of the day.

Scott was momentarily distracted by news coverage of the ongoing Vietnam war on the TV. He didn’t like to think about it, but he sometimes worried how long this conflict would drag on and if his son would be sent there when he reached drafting age. He himself had been stationed in France and Belgium in the latter stages of the Second World War, but in a supplies and logistics function, at a relatively safe distance from the front. James, however, might not be so lucky. “And here’s the new Chrysler, dad” interrupted James, directing his father’s attention back to the task at hand.

No pillars, no deal. Image: the author

The Imperial may have been downgraded to an extra-fancy Chrysler, but what of Chrysler itself? Kirkwood Chrysler’s brochure cover beckoned “Move up to Chrysler ’68” and the dark green 300 two-door hardtop gracing it did cut a dashing figure. Scott’s interest was in a four-door bodystyle, however, and on that front he found the pentastar’s offerings less enticing to his eyes: the roofline appeared a smidgen too tall in combination with the somewhat heavy looking body beneath it. Scott had recently read in Car & Driver about a totally new model coming next year, but he did not want to wait that long.

Scott briefly turned his eyes to Susie, who seemed to have lost interest and had changed the channel on the TV, now distracted by Rowan & Martin’s laugh-in.

Unsurprisingly, James had looked up the sporty 300 and showed his father the two-page spread: “I think this looks pretty good dad, especially with those hidden headlights!” His father did agree for the most part, but also realised there was a problem with choosing a four-door 300: like some other top-line models, it was available only as a hardtop, and Scott wasn’t a fan. He appreciated the looks, but not the extra wind-noise. Moreover, two business associates with Buick and Mercury hardtops both regretted choosing them because they started leaking in heavy rain after less than two years of use. With that, the Chrysler’s fate was sealed.

Image: the author

That left one last brochure, and one could say that they had saved the best for last, as it were. Whether Cadillac really was the best luxury car depended on whom you asked, but there was no disputing that it was the best known and best loved luxury car in America by far. Cadillac had come a long way- twenty years before it was still outsold two to one by now long-dead Packard, but they now had a vice-like grip on the high end of the domestic car market and it seemed unlikely they would let go anytime soon. Its relative ubiquity (Scott counted three Caddies in his street alone.) seemingly did not erode its status at all.

“It’s got the biggest engine ever dad” James enthused, “472 cubic inches!” (7.6 litres) Cadillac’s reasoning for bringing out this enormous V8 was the fact that cars, and especially those in the luxury class, were fitted with more and more power-sapping convenience options, so a larger and more powerful (375 Hp and 525 foot pounds of torque in this case) engine was called for.

Both Janet and Susie treated the photos of the cars in the brochure to admiring glances, and Scott liked what he saw too. This year’s model was very similar to the 1967 design, but with narrow horizontal grille bars instead of the bolder “eggcrate” grille used before. Scott preferred the new look. What Scout thought of the Cadillac remained unknown as he was now fast asleep on his favorite blanket.

At the end of the day, the Cadillac turned out to be the only one  on which the whole family could agree. So, a few days later, Scott and Janet took a test drive in a Sedan de Ville from dealer Charles Witzenbaum to find out if the car lived up to expectations. That it did, but as Scott prepared to turn around to return the car to the dealership and close the deal, Janet said “Now that we’re in the neighborhood anyway, let’s stop by Stone Mountain AMC”.

Scott turned to Janet with a slightly surprised expression: did she still want to try out that Ambassador? “Don’t worry honey, I know you love the Cadillac, but I took another look at those brochures before Jimmy took them to his room, and AMC has a really nice Rebel wagon with a V8. It’s cheaper than I thought and offers a five-year warranty too. We women like to move up in the world too, you know!”

Author’s note: Although the Lincoln Continental Mark III was officially a 1969 model, it became available from as early as April 1968.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

15 thoughts on “1968: A Question of Choice”

  1. If 18 year-old Susie was anything close to being “with it” in 1968 like her vernacular implies, the absolute last thing she is going to say regarding that neoclassical land barge that was the Continental Mark III would be Far Out. “Looks expensive Dad” maybe, but not that…

  2. Good morning, Bruno, and thanks for todays story. I can only wonder what they chose, but my money is on the Ambassador.

    This story reminds me of a story one of my friends told me. At the time his dad told to his friend; “I’m getting married”. The friend replied: “man, you’re crazy” Not long after the friend got in trouble with a woman and the correct thing to do at the time was getting married. So he told his friend: “I’m getting married, but I bought a Mercedes first, otherwise it won’t happen”.

  3. Good morning Bruno. What a nice story, and a great way to describe the wide variety of cars on offer to the American buyer back in the late 1960s. You captured the spirit of the age very well, I think. I’m now imagining a similar scenario for an affluent middle-class British buyer in 1968. There’s definitely a story in that too…

    1. I can’t help but think that it would be a very different process for the British equivalent of “Scott”.

      In 1968 Britain, even the rich were poor, and unless you were a celebrity or one of the landed gentry, a luxury car was a corporate purchase.

      “Scott” would be having the discussion with his MD, not his family. If he WAS the MD, the conversation would be with his accountant, and the final choice would be predicated on having a vehicle good enough for its purpose, but not so upmarket as to bring the workforce out in revolt, or make the customers and clients think that they were being overcharged.

  4. Great read, Bruno.
    I wonder what Scott would consider about buying a Merc. Was a lot more expensive than domestic rivals in those years, or Mercedes prices began to soar in the ´70s and ´80s?
    It would be nice to imagine a situation like this 22 years later, with Lexus, Infiniti and Acura (apart of Mercedes, BMW and Audi) around.

    1. Mercedes always was.very expensive. In the early Sixties a Beetle would have cost less than 4,000 Deutschmarks, a ‘Bathtub’ Ford 17M P3 was yours for roughly 6,600 DM and a W120 ‘Ponton’ Benz 180 cost around 9,000 DM. Later you could buy a Taunus TC with everything for less than ten thousand and a W115 started at around twelve grand (and you could still get a basic Beetle 1200 for less than five).

    2. Yes, in Europe they were very expensive in relation to rivals, but in the US too? I suppose that buying a “small” W109 instead of a proper full-size DeVille or a Continental could be seen as a bit of a eccentricity.
      What I do know (taking a look at a pair of magazines) is that in 1973 a W116 450 SE cost $13,500 and in 1979, almost $35,000. And we complain about inflation nowadays…

  5. Morning all and thank you Bruno. I remember 1968 all too well (and look forward to Daniel’s implied promise) but from the perspective of a cash-strapped student…. most of whom relied on bicycles or public transport. A few of us had powered wheels and alongside my side-valve Reliant Regal IV in the college car park could be found an ex-GPO Morris 8 Z-type van, a Hillman Husky, a Honda 50, a BSA Bantam and an Ariel. Relatively few of our lecturers had cars and those that did sourced them on the second or third hand market. One, by the name of Russell Harty, had a Ford 100E Prefect – I wonder what became of him? We were all petrol-heads of course and enjoyed reading about the machines we would never be able to afford…..

  6. Most of the interiors on those cars seem quite inviting… The colors, the tufted seats, the deep velvet used sometimes instead of leather… They’re a huge contrast to the coal mines that are the norm nowadays.

  7. Thank you Brrrruno for a very enjoyable story. It read like my best high school friend [and next door neighbor’s] family. His dad traded in their 1964 Chevy Biscayne sedan on a new 1967 Chrysler New Yorker sedan in light blue metallic. 3 Years later the New Yorker was traded on a new dark charcoal metallic 1970 Imperial LeBaron that his dad [a retired 2 star Admiral] bought off the Washington, DC Auto Show floor!

    Now as for Scott and Janet; I see 2 possible endings . . .

    1. They take a test ride in the Ambassador and Janet likes the car. What’s the old saying: Happy wife, happy life?

    2. After taking a ride in the Ambassador right on the heels of a Cadillac DeVille test ride, comparing how less luxurious the Ambassador really feels; more wind and road noise at speed, way too many interior cheap plastic pieces, and especially that intangible feel of *less car for the money*, they go back and drive the Cadillac once more, and both decide it’s time to move up in the world. 2 Days later they pick up their new Cadillac Sedan DeVille.

    Either way, Scott and Janet are enjoying the life as a middle-class family in America, at least for another half-dozen years until a newcomer to the region opens up a big Home Depot a mile down the road. Good thing their cars are all paid off, because they are not going to be able to afford another new car for many years. But at least they are participants in the great American capitalist system!

  8. Clever story well narrated. These cars seem to be very long, how many meters were they? I don’t see the Jaguar XJ as a logical option, it would not apply to this sort of buyers. They didn’t need to buy a new car at all. Why not think of a new story, this family choosing a car after the oil crisis?

    1. Thank you all for your kind words. Not being American and barely three years old in 1968 I had to go by accounts of people in the USA I have talked with about cars over the years, I was slightly anxious to see how it would go down with the DTW public. I’m glad I managed to avoid any obvious missteps!
      And I’ll see if I can look up some writings of Mr. Ken Purdy- someone not known to me until Rick King mentioned him to me; thank you again!

  9. Bruno there’s a compilation book of Ken’s writings – I think taken from Playboy articles he wrote. Some are about a couple that reminded me of your family and the way you used that kind of setting and their conversation to introduce an engaging dialogue about cars.

    I first found this in a library back in the day – lets say early 70s and enjoyed it and managed to find a second hand copy a few years back.

    Try ebay, there’s a copy on there now for £3.11, reportedly rather scruffy and some others in better condition and priced accordingly.

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